Diarmaid Ferriter: The more bishops say about marriage, the better for a Yes vote

‘If Archbishop Diarmuid Martin looks so frequently harried these days it is because he now has to do three other things on top of regular media engagements’

 Bishop Kevin Doran, Bishop of Elphin maintained  that “people who have children are not necessarily parents” and “perhaps in some cases people are gay because of contexts”. Photograph: Alan Betson / The Irish Times

Bishop Kevin Doran, Bishop of Elphin maintained that “people who have children are not necessarily parents” and “perhaps in some cases people are gay because of contexts”. Photograph: Alan Betson / The Irish Times

 

Towards the end of his long reign as Catholic Archbishop of Dublin, from 1940 to 1972, John Charles McQuaid became increasingly shrill in his interventions about those he regarded as undermining the teaching authority of the bishops. His final pastoral appeared in 1971 under the title Contraception and Conscience: Three Statements and ended with this declaration: “In matters of faith and morals, the bishops speak in the name of Christ and the faithful are to accept their teaching and to adhere to it with a religious assent of soul”.

That was a classic McQuaid command, but it was also his swansong; by then, he was losing the big battles and contraception was an issue that could not be contained according to his strictures; too many Catholics were making their own minds up.

The last decade of the McQuaid era was also interesting because it witnessed the arrival to Ireland of television. While McQuaid was very engaged with the communications revolution and its implications for religion – he made sure some of his priests were trained for television production and presenting – there was never any chance he would appear on television. He couldn’t tolerate the idea that he would have to spar with those he saw as ill equipped to debate religion, so he remained, in his own words, when refusing requests by journalists for interviews in the mid 1960s, “the ogre in his den”, a reminder that he also had a sense of humour.

Desmond Connell, appointed Catholic Archbishop of Dublin in 1988, like McQuaid, intensely disliked the idea of people he regarded as unqualified debating religion. In the 1960s he had also excoriated British theologian Leslie Dewart for daring to suggest that an understanding of God and dogma would have to be “drawn forth from contemporary experience”. As far as Connell was concerned, this was nonsense: truths central to his church’s teaching were eternal and unchanging.

No longer viable

Connell’s reticence was in stark contrast to his successor, Dr Diarmuid Martin. As soon as he was appointed Catholic Archbishop of Dublin in 2004, Martin made a beeline for RTÉ and the microphone.

It would have been unimaginable for McQuaid or Connell to go on television to be surrounded by lay people they believed were not qualified to talk about what the church should and should not do.

Martin knew the church had to adapt – as a matter of urgency – whereas for Connell, the notion of the church adapting to a changed environment was anathema.

If Archbishop Martin looks so frequently harried these days it is because he now has to do three other things on top of regular media engagements: fashion a language that is more humble and empathetic because the church has lost so much credibility in recent decades, rhetorically slap down his fellow bishops who use “insensitive and overly judgmental language” in debates on marriage and family, and finally, to speak of the supposedly “very clear” teachings of the church.

That is a lot to juggle, and as is often apparent, involves too many squares to circle, which is why the bishops are struggling with their communications on same-sex marriage.

Men of the cloth

When it came to family and marriage they were unchanging theorists who knew little of the practicalities of what they pronounced on. Back in the 1990s, novelist John Banville described his mother’s relationship with religion in the 1950s; she was “one of the last breed of Irish Catholics who were more pagan than Christian. She treated priests with a mixture of deference and cloaked distaste; they were fine in their place, she said, but you wouldn’t want to have them in the house”.

She was hardly alone, and if that was true of the attitude to priests, you could multiply it tenfold when it came to bishops. It remains the case that some bishops in the crassness of their interventions to define the essence of marriage, parenting or sexuality are still capable of highlighting the disconnect between themselves and wider society, as demonstrated by the Bishop of Elphin, Kevin Doran maintaining that “people who have children are not necessarily parents” and “perhaps in some cases people are gay because of contexts”.

In relation to the coming marriage equality referendum, Bishop Doran said the bishops “wouldn’t see ourselves necessarily as mounting a political campaign”. Advocates of a Yes vote in that referendum, myself included, might see that as a pity, because the more the bishops have to say about marriage, the better for the Yes side.

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